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Grayson Perry on cycling: 'Nothing sweeter than passing a MAMIL in full kit while you’re in a dress'

Grayson Perry tells us he's a fan of Chris Boardman, how he used to race MTB and how cycling as transport needs to be normalised in the UK

Maria David
29 Oct 2019

Grayson has been a supporter of Sustrans for many years, and recently gave a talk on cycling at a fundraiser event for the charity. Cyclist caught up with the artist, who currently has an exhibition at the Victoria Miro Gallery, to hear his views on cycling culture.

Cyclist: Do you sense a boom in mass market cycling?

Grayson Perry: Yes. The boom in cycling has been unbelievable. Towards the end of Mosquito Bikes I bumped into co-owner Phil Burnett, and I asked him how he feels about cycling? He said it’s like when you follow a band in your local pub and then suddenly they’re playing stadiums and you’re a little bit cross about it because it was your thing.

I wrote a graphic novel, Cycle of Violence. It’s not a particularly palatable read, but in it I predicted the boom in cycling.

Cyc: Is the move towards sustainability driving the boom?

GP: I bet if you drill down most people don’t cycle because it’s green. They cycle because it’s quick and fun. People don’t cycle thinking 'Oh I’m being green'. They’re thinking 'I’ve got to get to the shop and the quickest way to get there is on the bike.'

Mind you, some people in the middle classes love to be good. In the past it used to be religion, now it’s the environment. They say 'I recycle, I ride a pushbike, I don’t fly, I’ve got a yoga mat, I’ve got a reusable water bottle,' showing they’re in the post-materialist status.

Cyc: Would you say cycling is linked to class?

GP: I think among the working class, people say 'I’ve got a car. Look at me, I’ve got a car.' I think it’s partly to do with the fact that Mrs Thatcher said that if a man reaches the age of 30 and they’re still on the bus they’ve failed. I think that there’s still that going on.

A middle class person would either ride a road bike or a Dutch bike. They’re saying, 'Look at me, I’m green, I’m in a photograph on Instagram!'

Cyc: Do you think it’s fair that cyclists are sometimes portrayed negatively?

GP: No, but there is a bit of self-righteousness among some cyclists. I drive, I ride a motorcycle, I’m a pedestrian and a cyclist. When I’m pulling up at lights at night I see cyclists who’ve got no lights and they’re wearing all black – typical hipster. And I say, 'Mate do you drive?' And they always go, 'No' and I say 'I can tell. You don’t know what it looks like on the other side of a rainy windscreen. You’re invisible.'

You also get shoaling, where a slow cyclist always goes to the front of the pack of cyclists at the traffic lights and slows everyone up. If you’ve got twenty cyclists at the traffic lights and you’ve got lots of cars going past you have to put yourself in danger to get past that person. It’s annoying.

Cyc: Do you get involved in commuter racing?

GP: A lot of people on a bike, particularly me, want to be competitive. You’re at the traffic lights and it’s not spoken about. You look at the bike rider and their bike, their kit, and if they are clipped in. That’s always a sign that they’ve got some kind of pride, and then you give it some beans.

There is nothing sweeter than passing a MAMIL who’s in full kit while you’re in a dress, riding a Dutch ladies’ bike.

Cyc: Do other riders recognise you on the road?

GP: I don’t know, because I’m usually gone! Mind you, I’m a 60-year-old man so I’m not exactly gonna burn off the entirety of the cycling population.

Cyc: Do you feel safe on the roads?

GP: As a cyclist in London you feel physically threatened. I have a near-death experience at least once a week. A little tap from a car could be death for a cyclist. So perhaps there’s a lack of empathy from car drivers.


Cyc: How much cycling do you do?

GP: I do a long mountain bike ride at least once a week if I can. It’s usually a 30-mile loop around the South Downs in Friston Forest and Jevington, on my Specialized carbon Stumpjumper 29er or my Scott Scale. I can also get up to Epping Forest from my studio in 25 minutes.

I ride around the city, on some days doing 20 or 30 miles on my Dutch Vogue Elite bike. It weighs about 40lbs (18kg), is 3-speed with no uphill gear, so it is very good for core strength.

If I’ve got nothing on of an evening in the summer maybe I’ll go for a two-hour meander through Central London on a quiet route and people-watch. At least half the journey is on a protected cycleway, so it’s relaxing and quite pleasant.

Cyc: What do you think of e-bikes?

GP: My wife rides one of those Gocycle e-Bikes. I think if it gets people out of cars it’s fine. I’m thinking of buying an e-mountain bike so I can do two rides in the weekend.

If I go out for my long mountain bike ride on a Saturday I’m too knackered on a Sunday to do another ride. But with an e-bike I can use that as a kind of chair lift, so I can just do continual downhills all the time. I’ll still feel a bit of a fraud and I’ll tell people 'I do ride my normal bike on all the other days!'

Cyc: ...and gravel bikes?

GP: I call them the Lib Dems of cycling – a bit like the centrist dad. I am slightly bemused, because as a long-term mountain biker one of the central things about mountain biking is being in control if you hit a rut or a bump.

When riding with drop handlebars, you might as well have your hands tied behind your back. I find the ergonomics of drop handlebars a mystery, unless you are in a race.

Cyc: Do you race?

GP: I did mountain bike racing all around the country for 12 years. I was obviously not a contender at the national scale, but I won a couple of local races. Now I’d struggle to complete the courses as I just don’t have the time to train. When I was at the peak of my racing I had an online coach and I was doing four sessions a week, just to maintain my position.

The driving is another reason I gave up racing. Why drive for three hours when I could cycle in that time? Also, when I raced I had a huge number of crashes. It’s much more expensive for me to hurt myself now.

Cyc: What standout memories do you have from your racing days?

GP: Apart from when I popped my shoulder while going full speed through a bomb hole in a downhill race in Dorset, and the time I broke my wrist after losing my front wheel, there was also the rivalry with a guy called Carl, during the Beastway races. He was a lovely guy until he got on the bike, and then he was the meanest person and would push you into the stinging nettles.

That’s fine, that’s what racing is. I think it was because at my first ever mountain bike race at Beastway I beat him and he was pissed off because he didn’t know who I was. I was just this person that nobody knew.

Towards the end of my experience at Beastway I raced for Mosquito Bikes, which was my local bicycle shop, and I’d bought my first mountain bike from there. I always felt a bit of a fraud though.

Cyc: What do you think can be done to increase cycling?

GP: The image of it has to change. A lot of people think cycling is a sport. The thing we need to do is to make it normal. Sometimes there’s this idea that cycling is this special thing you only do like when you go to Center Parcs.

If you’re in the Netherlands you’re not on a bike, you’re just going somewhere. That’s what we need in this country, so that people are just citizens on a bike, not needing to wear special kit.

Cyc: Do you think it is a tall order for the UK to have the same cycling culture as the Netherlands?

GP: It’s a myth that the Netherlands has always been this cycle-friendly place. When you research it you find that they made a specific government decision back in the 60s to make it cycle-friendly. So it wasn’t that long ago. I think Chris Boardman is doing a good job. He’s very sensible around this kind of thing. I follow him on Twitter.

Cyc: Where do you think cycling is going?

GP: I don’t think that interest in cycling will drop. In the 50s and 60s, my mum said she used to cycle out from London to Southend for a weekend. It wasn’t like they were cycle tourists. They were just doing what normal people did. I think that for cycling to be seen as a form of transport people have to feel safer.

The problem is people are addicted to the convenience of other forms of transport. That convenience is the enemy to making the changes that will be healthier for us and the planet.

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